Google G1 phone: Does it know too much?

An article in USA Today has raised the ire of many privacy experts. Apparently the G1 phones home with more information than originally thought. Are you concerned about Google's attitude toward user privacy?

Last September TechRepublic's managing editor Jason Hiner introduced members to the new G1 phone from Google and T-Mobile. It seems that the reviews about the phone were mixed. The most interesting comment I read mentioned that the G1 was immediately compared to the iPhone and that the G1 would have done better if it had come out first.

No privacy

Google has been making more of an impact in the area of individual privacy. The most recent example of this is explained by InformationWeek's Eric Zeman in his article "Google Says Privacy Doesn't Exist, Get Used to Everyone Knowing Everything about You." Apparently a Pittsburgh couple felt that their privacy was violated by Google's Street Views.

I really don't have an opinion on the case, but what surprised me and got the press up in arms was how cavalier Google's response was. Google pretty much said that privacy doesn't exist. I'm sure that the press took advantage of Google's statement (probably to a fault), but as Zeman mentions:

"I can see Google's point here, but for Google to come out and say that privacy doesn't exist is not a great publicity move for the company."

Trust Google?

Another point of concern is whether we should trust companies like Google with our personal information. Jason Hiner alludes to this in his recent posting "Poll: Who Would You Rather Trust with Your Data, Google or Microsoft?" Jason refers to "storage in the cloud," but what if Google was saving your personal information in the exact same way?

What's the G1 doing?

Leslie Cauley of USA TODAY stirred up a hornet's nest in the article "Google's G1 Phone Makes It Easy to Track Surfing Habits." Cauley made the point that the G1 phone can be considered a surveillance device:

"The G1, as it turns out, also stands to make life a whole lot easier for Google, by making it a snap to track your movements on the mobile Web and send you ads as it does on the desktop. The device, sold exclusively by T-Mobile, gives Google access to your e-mail, instant messages, contact lists, Web-search history and geographic location. By keeping tabs on your mobile life, Google can quickly figure out what sort of ads to send your way, and when."

The above image (courtesy of USA TODAY) represents a graphic (developed by Robert W. Ahrens and Leslie Cauley) that explains in detail what information Google captures when certain buttons are pushed on the G1. Check out the graphic to see what information is sent to Google's servers, for example:

  • Turning on the phone-Unlike other phones that I know of, the G1 requires a Google account to initiate the phone, and every time the phone is turned on, the user is logged in to that particular Google account.
  • Contacts-Apparently contact information, such as e-mail addresses and phone numbers, are stored on Google servers.
  • Instant messaging-IMs are stored on Google servers, just like e-mail messages in Gmail.
Highly prized information

At first, I didn't understand why this was so different from using a normal computer and any one of the many Google services. Then Cauley quoted Rep. Edward Markey D-Mass, former chairperson of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet:

"The Big Brother aspect of it is troubling. Mobile consumers are especially vulnerable. Unlike PCs, cellphones tend to be used by one person exclusively. The information they telegraph on Web browsing, lifestyle and more tends to be 'highly personalized."'

Money made through advertising is the driving force once again. It seems that Google wants to deliver specialized advertising to the G1, based on where the phone is located and the background information saved about the user. This doesn't seem to sit right with me. I understand the need to advertise and make money, but when is it too much. What do you think?

No privacy standards

Cauley goes on to explain something that I didn't really understand completely until now. There is no one, all-encompassing set of privacy rules that Internet companies must abide by. Companies like Google set up their own privacy standards. To many, that's bothersome; is Google more concerned about protecting themselves or us users?

If you are interested, Google has a Privacy Center where they describe their privacy practices for each specific application of theirs. Is that good enough? I'm not so sure, what are your thoughts?

Final thoughts

Cauley says it all:

"Once your information has been collected and stored, there's no way to get rid of it. You can't see what's been collected or have it expunged. It's Google's for as long as it wants to hold onto it."

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